To begin with, the BBC’s Dracula looked like it had it all. The minds and talents of Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, back for another high-profile literary adaptation. A promised new twist on the original to make the deadly Count the “hero of his own story”. An intriguing, largely unknown leading man (at least in the UK) in the form of Claes Bang, who might hope for a starmaking turn in the vein of Benedict Cumberbatch.
And finally, it had a prestigious slot at 9pm on New Year’s Day, following in the steps of Luther and (of course) Sherlock to kick off 2020 with a bang (or at least, a Claes Bang).
The stage was set for a big success – but somehow, it didn’t quite come together. Despite reasonably positive early reviews the overnight ratings for episode one were surprisingly low at 3.6 million (the big-budget drama was beaten by Doctor Who, Emmerdale and Coronation Street on New Year’s Day) and for the second and third episodes they dropped even lower to under 3 million (2.85 and 2.7 million respectively). For comparison, Idris Elba’s Luther managed 5.62 million in the same slot last year (dropping to just under 4.7 million by the end of its four-episode run), so really this has to be a bit of a disappointment.
Meanwhile, viewer reaction to the series’ third episode – which saw Dracula come to the present day – was largely negative, ending the previously-praised drama on something of a sour note. While consolidated seven-day ratings are bound to tell a slightly different story for Dracula, it’s definitely not the start that its creators would have hoped for, especially so soon after Gavin & Stacey’s Christmas special proved that scripted TV can still draw huge numbers.
So what went wrong? Why didn’t people tune in to Dracula in the first place? Well, there could be a few reasons. Many have been quick to compare Dracula to Moffat and Gatiss’s previous series Sherlock (including me – see that first paragraph), and it’s not hard to see why. Famous literary adaptation – tick. Three 90-minute dramas? Tick. Irreverent, ingenious attitude to beloved source material? Big tick.
Yes, many of the elements that made Sherlock such a success were there – but in emphasising that, we may have failed to note that Dracula was quite a different beast. For all its flourishes, at its heart Sherlock was a mystery drama where a detective solved an intriguing case (at least in the early years), a genre that’s incredibly popular with UK viewers. Just check out ITV’s drama output any month of the year, and you’ll see a smorgasbord of troubled ‘tecs eliminating suspects – Sherlock’s really just a rarified version of that.
Dracula, meanwhile, is unequivocally a creature of horror, a genre that’s not everyone’s cup of tea in quite the same way (those who love it love it, but it’s not as universal as crime-solving). Adverts that teased gory, explicit violence may also have turned off some traditional TV viewers, who might have preferred something a bit tamer as they started a new year.
And while both Sherlock and Dracula are both well-adapted literary characters (the first and second most adapted respectively), they’re of a slightly different mould. Sherlock is a British cult hero, a regular on the small screen who people in the UK have fond memories of based on older adaptations. Dracula is more complex – a Transylvanian character created by an Irish writer, mostly popularised by American films (at least to modern audiences – Hammer horror was a while ago at this stage) and who is usually the monster at the edges of a story, not a series lead.
Dracula (Claes Bang) and Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells)
Speaking at the screening for episode one, series star Dolly Wells noted with surprise that the audience hadn’t reacted more to the reveal of her character as the new Van Helsing – but really, that character just doesn’t have a profile in the British psyche in the way characters from Sherlock do. I mean, what do we expect from a Van Helsing, aside from “being a bloke who hunts Dracula”? Is there anything about that character that’s as familiar as a Dr Watson?
Speaking of which, unlike Dracula Sherlock also had the benefit of at least one fairly well-known TV lead – Martin Freeman, whose turn from comedy work like The Office to drama was one of the intriguing selling points at the time.
And Sherlock also began with a less high-pressure timeslot. A lot of people have compared Dracula’s first episode ratings with Sherlock’s original premiere (which scored 7.533 million overnight for episode one) which is unfair partly because of the time that has passed – 2010 was a very different TV landscape to 2020 – but also because they aired in completely different slots. Sherlock series one aired in July, only graduating to its prestigious New Year’s Day slot from series two onwards, when it was already a big success.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that New Year’s Day is really a big TV day in the same way that Christmas Day is anyway – you don’t have a captive audience at that stage, and people are more open to leaving the house and doing other things – and I think that Sherlock did as well as it did in that slot because it was Sherlock, not because it aired on 1st January.
Other popular dramas have done almost as well there, sure – as noted above, Luther series five did last year last year – but again, Luther was an already-beloved, established series. Dracula was brand-new, unseen, without any particularly famous faces in the cast or any real unique selling point. “From the makers of Sherlock” doesn’t mean much to viewers at home, and the genre and other trappings (as well as Moffat and Gatiss’s secrecy about the project, not announcing many characters or certain key plot points for obvious reasons) may have put them off giving the show a chance.
Given the quality of, and positive reaction to, the series’ first episode, it could have been that solid word of mouth and catch-up would have helped draw in more viewers for Dracula in future weeks. Unfortunately, following in Luther’s footsteps the BBC elected to broadcast all three episodes on successive days instead, which left latecomers an intimidating block of episodes – 90 minutes each, remember – with little time to catch up before the next one aired.
“It wasn’t something we always [planned],” Moffat told RadioTimes.com in early December. “Not especially. We didn’t know what the plan would be.
“I don’t know what the result will be. People might choose to wait longer. But I think the way we regard television now is not so much ‘I’m watching it while it’s on’, as ‘that’s now been delivered to my hard drive; I’ll watch it in my own time, thank you’. That’s how we think.”
And the reasoning for this release strategy is a bit of a mystery. Of course, the series was co-funded by Netflix who released all three episodes the day after episode three aired on the BBC, which might suggest an attempt to get all the episodes out quickly in the UK before they went to the US – but the BBC has told me that Netflix wouldn’t be able to twist the Beeb’s arm on release given the terms of their agreement.
Perhaps, aware that the third episode might be divisive the BBC wanted viewers to leave the series with the memories of episodes one and two still fresh – but it seems a little unlikely and tinfoil hat-wearing to really think they were scheming to influence the perception of the show in this way. Instead, based on the reaction to Luther last year and Sherlock two years before, the reasoning is as simple as the fact that they must have thought this strategy could work. In the end, it probably didn’t do an already-risky drama any favours.
Overall, Dracula may be remembered a little differently when the dust has settled, and it goes without saying that drawing in millions of viewers is always an achievement in the fragmented modern landscape of TV. But perhaps it could have done even better if everyone had stopped treating it like Sherlock before it had even started.
Lightning doesn’t always strike twice – especially when you’re hiding out in a big Gothic castle.
Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly compared consolidated ratings for Luther and Sherlock with overnight ratings for Dracula. This has been amended.
Dracula is streaming on BBC iPlayer now